Kobe Bryant and LeBron James square off for the first time this season on Thursday night. It's a chance to see two superstars who almost single-handedly carry their clubs on a nightly basis. It's also a chance to see two of the leading candidates for MVP at this early stage of the season.
But as great as LeBron and Kobe have been, they have plenty of company in the MVP field. In fact, if the vote were held today, we'd have to go with a certain bald-headed guy in Boston. Here's our look at the top five in the MVP race so far (all stats and records through Wednesday):
1. Kevin Garnett (19.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.6 apg, 55.3 FG%, 81.0 FT%)
His stats aren't as great as the other top MVP candidates. Indeed, his main numbers are his lowest in a decade. But the Celtics are 20-3, the best record in the NBA, and he has been the main difference-maker. He still ranks in the top 25 in rebounds, blocks (1.48), steals (1.65) and shooting percentage. More important, he's been the emotional leader and anchor for a defense that leads the league in points allowed and field goal percentage allowed. If one thinks the MVP should go to a player who makes his team a big winner, KG has to be the pick at this early juncture.
2. LeBron James (29.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 7.6 apg, 48.5 FG%, 31.6 3FG%)
The front-runner over the first month when he was playing arguably the best ball of his career, his candidacy has slipped of late as the Cavaliers have dropped nine of 11. But James missed five games during that span with a sprained index finger, so it's not as if it's his fault. Meanwhile, no other player owns the stats he does across the board. He leads the NBA in scoring while ranking eighth in assists, and is posting career highs in shooting percentage, rebounds and blocks (1.24). As for intangibles, he carried the Cavs early when they were depleted by injuries and holdouts.
3. Kobe Bryant (26.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 4.8 apg, 2.04 spg, 44.6 FG%, 32.5 3FG%)
Like James, he has done a great job leading his team all season. The Lakers (15-9) are fourth in the West, and Bryant is performing at his usual All-Star level. He ranks second in scoring and seventh in steals. He's also found a way to get past his summer trade demands and put his focus squarely onto helping his team win games. If the Lakers keep it up and finish in the top four of the West, this just might be the year he finally gets that MVP that has eluded him his first 11 seasons.
4. Dwight Howard (23.5 ppg, 15.1 rpg, 2.67 bpg, 61.5 FG%, 60.8 FT%)
His team has come back to earth a bit after a 16-4 start, but this 6-foot-11 center has moved into the elite among NBA big men. His rebounding numbers alone are eye-popping. But Howard also ranks second in shooting percentage, fourth in blocks and eighth in scoring. Oh yeah, he's also first in dunks and free throw attempts. Howard still needs to work on his foul shooting and passing out of the double team, but he has stamped himself a legit MVP candidate with his play so far.
5. Steve Nash (17.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 12.2 apg, 51.7 FG%, 46.3 3FG%, 93.3 FT%)
The two-time MVP is up to his usual tricks, running the high-octane Suns attack like only he can. As usual, he's not only been dishing and playmaking but also filling up the basket with his deadeye shooting (he leads the NBA in assists and free throw accuracy and is among the top-shooting guards). As for intangibles, they are beyond dispute. Nash can take over a game at the end like few of his peers, and he has led the Suns to one of the NBA's best records.
Honorable mention: Baron Davis, Manu Ginobili, Carlos Boozer, Allen Iverson, Chris Paul.